Its slender, brown pods, sought after by the world’s greatest chefs, breathe the sweetest of aromas. Let’s take a look back at its history and how it’s made.
It was at the turn of the 19th century that the Mexican orchid vanilla planifolia was introduced to Reunion Island. Used by the Aztecs to flavour their cups of cocoa, Spanish conquistadors exported it to Europe which also fell under the spell of its delicate aroma. The French decided to grow it on Reunion Island, then known as Bourbon Island. In a nod to these origins, vanilla produced in the Indian Ocean has been known as Bourbon vanilla since 1964.
For more than twenty years, the vanilla creepers planted on Reunion Island remained infertile, with no insects or birds able to pollinate its flowers to be found on the island. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a slave and budding botanist, discovered the secret of manual fertility, using a pike to lift up the wall separating the flower’s male and female organs. Bourbon vanilla’s future was safe...
140 producers set up shop, primarily on the island’s east coast between Sainte-Suzanne and Saint-Joseph. There they cultivated almost 190 hectares of Bourbon vanilla in forests or in shade houses. Only six tonnes of these luxury pods were produced every year. They were sold to local island foodies, or were exported to mainland France where they found space on the shelves of gourmet delicatessens.
It takes two years of TLC to get from the flower to the precious brown pod! Inspired by traditional Mexican techniques, two Reunion Islanders, Ernest Loupy and David de Floris, developed the manufacturing process in the 19h century. The process begins by heating the pods in water steam-heated up to 65°C, where they take on their beautiful black colour.
The pods are then left to dry naturally in the sun every day for two to three weeks, and then on a rack in the shade. This is a key factor in determining the quality of Bourbon vanilla. To develop their aroma, they are then stored for two to three months in a wooden trunk lined with paper coated in paraffin.
The Provanille cooperative in Bras-Panon accounts for nearly 80% of Bourbon vanilla production. After a tour of its plantations and workshops (or those of private producers open to the public), it’s hard not to buy some vanilla pods or vanilla-flavoured coffee or soap.
Adding aromas to warm milk, enhancing duck or flavouring a cake: Bourbon vanilla coming for dinner! According to the chef Olivier Roellinger, one third of a vanilla pod is enough for meals serving 4-6 people. Just split the pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the back of a small knife.